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Taking Back Our Children: What the Chesser Custody Case Says About Faith and Parenting in Islamophobic America

Zachary Chesser. (Photo: Wikipedia / Flickr)

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Zachary Chesser.Zachary Chesser. (Photo: Wikipedia / Flickr)I spent one year with my baby before he was taken away. It is the most difficult thing that happened to me Alhamdulillah (Praise to God). I am grateful to Allah for allowing me to spend that little time with my son.” – Proscovia Nzabanita

This past January, in a case of overt Islamophobia, Proscovia Nzabanita was stripped of all guardianship rights over her son, whom she calls “H” to protect his privacy. Full legal custody rights were granted to H’s paternal grandmother, against the explicit wishes of both biological parents. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Prince William County even ruled that no adult was permitted to bring H to mosque, essentially ordaining that he must be raised Christian. The custody case is being reheard in mid-November in the Circuit Court of Prince William County.

A family torn apart

Proscovia Nzambanita and Zachary Chesser, both converts to Islam, married in 2009. Zachary has been behind bars since 2010, after pleading guilty to charges of providing material support to terrorists, and communicating threats and soliciting crimes of violence. (He was accused of posting threats online against the creators of “South Park” after an episode depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit). Proscovia, a Ugandan national, agreed to leave the United States after pleading guilty to making false statements to federal authorities about her husband’s whereabouts. Instead of returning to Uganda, where she feared she might be tortured, Proscovia went to Jordan. After signing an agreement that H would be returned to her as soon as she was safely settled, Proscovia left him in the care of her family.

In the interim, however, Zachary’s mother, Barbara Chesser, filed for temporary custody and won. The court later vacated the order, but the precedent left Proscovia’s family in a considerably weaker position for the formal custody hearing this past January.

“Absolutely, unequivocally legally unfit as parents”

At the hearing in January, with Proscovia abroad and Zachary behind bars, neither parent could be physically present. The court ruled that both Zachary and Proscovia were “both absolutely, unequivocally legally unfit as parents.” While the judge’s decision with respect to Zachary might be reasonable, considering his long prison sentence, his ruling with regards to Proscovia is very worrying, given that not a single witness testified about Proscovia’s actual ability to parent. In an exclusive interview with CagePrisoners, a London-based human rights organization, Proscovia explained, “None of them [lawyers representing the government or social workers] tried contacting me [about the custody case]. None of them attempted to evaluate my ability to parent until after you sent me these questions.”

Since the court did not hear any testimony about Proscovia’s ability to parent – and since her only criminal offense is the perjury charge included under her plea bargain – it appears the judge made his decision on other grounds. Quite simply, the judge’s decision seems to reflect a belief that Proscovia is “too Muslim” to retain custody of her own child.

Cecilia Nzabanita: the “weak” link

Instead of being focused on whether H should be returned to his mother, the hearing unfolded as a battle between his paternal grandmother, Barbara Chesser, and his maternal grandmother, Cecilia Nzabanita. Despite not interviewing either biological parent, H’s court-appointed guardian during the trial, Lorri Battistoni, determined both that Proscovia was an unfit parent, and that Cecilia couldn’t be trusted because of her sustained relationship with her daughter. Barbara’s lawyer, Maryse Allen, similarly insisted that Cecilia “[couldn’t] say no to her daughter” – and was thus unable to protect H from Proscovia’s presumably dark Islamic tendencies. Ms. Allen and Ms. Battistoni even claimed that Cecilia was a potentially “weak link” since she consoled her crying daughter over the phone by reassuring her that she would see her son again.

The court clearly took Ms. Allen’s and Ms. Battistoni’s claims about Cecilia’s suitability as a full legal guardian seriously – the judge went against the explicit wishes of Zachary and Proscovia, granting full legal custody to Barbara and shared physical custody to both grandparents. Yet Barbara had almost completely cut off contact with her son and his family after he got married: According to Proscovia, the couple spent a total of two or so hours with Barbara between the time they got married and Zachary’s arrest. Conversely, during that period, Proscovia’s parents visited the couple frequently, dropping off baby food and diapers for H and offering them a place to stay when they needed one. Furthermore, Cecilia and her son had been caring for H since Proscovia’s departure from the United States nearly a year earlier, not Barbara.

“Do you dress your grandson like a Muslim?”

Some of the exchanges between Cecilia and the opposing attorneys about her “dangerous” parenting decisions would be almost laughable, if they didn’t reveal the dangerously Islamophobic undertone of the hearing:

Barbara’s attorney: Did you ever dress H in all-black clothing?

Cecilia: What?

Barbara’s attorney: Did you ever dress H in all-black clothing?

Cecilia: All black?

Barbara’s attorney: Yes. Black-colored clothing.

Zachary’s attorney: Objection. Relevance.

The Court: Wait a minute, instead of asking her that question because it might be confusing her because of the language difference, why don’t you ask her if she dresses the child as a Muslim.

Cecelia: And go where?

Barbara’s attorney: I’m asking has the child ever wore [sic] all black clothing?

Cecilia: No. He has different colors . . . .

Ms. Battistoni even had the audacity to refer to Proscovia as a “jihadist” and announce that “jihadists believe that children should be raised to be jihadist” – even though Proscovia has never been convicted of terrorism-related charges.

Barbara Chesser puts her daughter-in-law’s life in danger

Lawyers for the biological parents and the Nzabanita family pointed out the hypocrisy of Barbara’s concerns, considering her parenting decisions were influenced by an outside source – her life partner, Stacy Anderson. As was revealed in the hearing, Anderson wrote an email to the Jordanian government – with Barbara’s full knowledge and approval – to inform them of Proscovia’s past. According to Barbara, the email “essentially said, do you know you have issued visas to these people. . . do you know who they are?” and Anderson attached Proscovia and Zachary’s court documents to the message. As a result, Proscovia was forced to withdraw from university and spent several months in hiding from the Jordanian intelligence service until she received UN refugee status. Anderson and Barbara were willing to endanger Proscovia, despite the immense cost that H would suffer.

“And I make a finding this is radical Islam”

In addition to stripping the biological parents of all custody rights and granting full legal custody to Barbara Chesser, the judge also set explicit limits on the time that Proscovia could speak to her son – to once a week only, for 30 minutes. He ruled that neither Zachary nor Proscovia could speak with their child unless one of the grandparents or another approved individual was supervising the conversation. Outrageously, the order even bans any adult from bringing H to any religious institution, unless it is a church that his grandmothers personally attend or of which they are a member; this essentially means that the judge has used the court order to ordain that H should be raised Christian without any exposure to his parents’ faith.

As perhaps the most striking piece of evidence that the court’s ruling was driven by Islamaphobia – and not Proscovia’s actual ability to parent – consider the judge’s comments during the closing minutes of the hearing:

“I don’t want any discussion – this is not Islam with these people, correct, this is radical Islam? And I make a finding this is radical Islam.”

For Proscovia, the custody hearing solidified her belief that the war on terror is really a war against her faith. In an interview with CagePrisoners, she commented:

“I went from speaking to my son daily to speaking with him for half an hour in a week, supervised. I am not allowed to say anything about my religion to him. I cannot even say the Islamic greeting or even mention common words known to Muslims in [A]rabic. It is a clear war on Islam. . . My son saw a picture of me, and without anyone telling him, he called out ‘mama’ . . . I left him when he was a year old, barely walking, and Allah made him remember alhamdulillah. They have spent lots of money in trying to erase my husband and I from his life because we are Muslims. . . .”

And given what was said and decided at the custody hearing, who could argue with her logic? After all, in Troxel v. Granville, the US Supreme Court ruled that the “Federal Constitution permits a State to interfere with [parents’ fundamental right to rear their children] only to prevent harm or potential harm to the child.” Religious beliefs, whether or not they constitute something called “radical Islamism,” are not a legitimate legal basis on which to evaluate a parent’s suitability to care for her child. It seems that the Islamophobia that’s become endemic inside the FBI, NYPD, the federal criminal justice system and the Bureau of Prisons, has now reared its ugly head in custody cases as well – which is probably unsurprising to many of us, given the United States’ long history of limiting the reproductive rights of people of color.

The recent gag order

In early October 2012, at the behest of Barbara, the circuit court imposed a gag order on all of the family members and their legal teams. While Barbara’s lawyers argued that the gag order is necessary to protect H’s welfare, both his parents and their legal teams vehemently disagreed. Shockingly, the full text of a previous draft of this article was submitted to the court to substantiate the “need” for enforced silence. In an effort to reach a compromise, the judge said the gag order would be in place unless the legal teams receive explicit permission from the court.

If last year’s ruling demonstrates the continuing creep of Islamophobia into every aspect of American life, the gag order parallels another trend – the increasing veil of secrecy shrouding the many infringements on our civil rights.

“Too Muslim” to parent?

The custody ruling for H has been appealed and a trial de novo (a brand new trial) is being heard by the Circuit Court of Prince William County on November 13 and 14. Since she agreed to leave the country, Proscovia has no counsel available at the hearing (Zachary has court-appointed counsel because he is incarcerated). Let us hope the circuit court breaks with the lower court and assesses H’s case on the basis of what will best serve his welfare, and not based on his mother’s religious or political beliefs.

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